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by Miles Mathis
by Bo Bartlett
Realism, Traditionalism, Classicism, Naturalism, Contemporary Realism, New Realism, Old Master Realism, Classical Realism—whatever you choose to call it, real painting is making a comeback. Artists all over the world are returning in ever greater numbers to painting subject pictures. They are using many different methods but all are joined by a common goal—painting visual representations of the visual world. They are also joined by an interest in technique as a means to this representation. That is, they recognize the importance of learning a skill, a method, and becoming masters of their media. No longer is the idea the thing. No, the artifact is the thing. It is the outcome that is important, not just the concept. Many of these artists have apprenticed themselves for years in one way or another—either to a chosen master or to some other structured program of study. Many paint from life; some make their own canvases; a few, their own paints.
In some places, this tradition never wholly died out—in China and Russia, for instance. Even in the US the tradition held on feebly in a couple of small pockets through the worst times in the middle of the 20th century. But it was in the US and Western Europe that the tradition came closest to dying out altogether. This is especially tragic in Europe, which was the birthplace and pinnacle of realist art. Except for a few American schools, Western Europe is the last to join the counter-modern trend, having embraced the avant garde even more fully than the US ever has (especially in society at large).
But despite the dilatoriness of Europe and the continued foot-dragging in the US, the numbers in realism continue to increase apace. Attendance at private schools is booming, many organizations have been founded and have attracted large memberships, and sales are increasing. A few galleries have switched from modernism to realism, even in the heart of New York City. All this is very good news, although it is only the beginning. Very much is left to be done. The avant garde is still very strong and strongly opposed to realism. Almost all the major institutions throughout the world are dominated by the avant garde, including governmental bodies, universities, foundations, trusts, and museums. The upper end of the market is also controlled by the avant garde through the use of the media—magazines, critics, books—which act as advertising for the largest galleries.
After that fairly upbeat introduction, I have to admit that I have glossed the current state of realism mainly as a lead-in to a critique of it. For while I am part of realism—simply by definition—I do not feel fully allied to it. One would think that a realist must benefit from an upswing in realism, but I have not found it to be so. The rebirth of realism is so young that its growth is still mostly chaotic. And of course an explosion of interest in realism by artists is not the same as an explosion of educated clients (or artists). The number of buyers is quite small and the number of buyers with taste would appear to be minimal.
Many will find an artist critiquing his own field to be somewhat strange. It will be assumed to be bad PR if nothing worse. However, I find myself in a peculiar situation, a situation in which standard business practices and even standards of communication are not of much use. I have come to the conclusion that speaking my mind is the best thing I can do. The first reason is that I have absolutely nothing to lose by doing so. Playing the game by the rules has gotten me nowhere. Everyone would like to think that all an artist has to do is paint: the rest will take care of itself. Quality is its own advertisement. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is naïve. I am now fifteen years into my career and I do not find that viewers are now any more likely to look at my work like I believe it should be looked at (or to look at any art work the way it should be looked at). It has finally occurred to me that the best policy is to simply tell them, to give them the clue they have been seeking. If this ends up further alienating me, then at least I will be on record for future generations—generations who may be more receptive. In all my readings of history, I have always been most disappointed when the neglected artists did not at least tell the world what they thought of it. They mostly denied themselves this satisfaction. Some of the greatest critical writing has come from neglected artists—the few who had the courage to say what they really thought. The Thoreaus and Nietzsches and Whistlers and van Goghs. They did themselves no great favor in the short term, but in the long term they have done quite well. They were long-sighted, understanding that art is long and that the market is a fickle temptress, almost always wrong.
Dan Gerhartz, a well-known realist, asked me about ten years ago what I was trying to do. The question shocked me at the time. It seemed so obvious. I didn’t give him an answer because the situation appeared hopeless: if you have to explain a painting then all is lost. Besides, I knew that his question was one of technique and I didn’t want to talk about technique. I knew that his question meant that there was something about my technique he didn’t like, and he was trying to find a nice way of giving me some advice. I could see that he and I could have nothing to say to eachother: I was looking at his paintings as paintings and he was looking at my paintings as paint. That I was correct in this was confirmed to me over the next decade, as Dan continued to experiment and obsess with technique, adding ever more color and playing with effects, as I continued to downplay my technique in search of subtle mood.
I have found this divergence to be informative, since in my opinion he and I had started out very much the same. Our early paintings are alike in many ways—not just in technique. We had galleries nearby in Santa Fe in the early 90’s and many people commented on our similarity—our beautiful brooding girls and Sargenty paint. He was always more interested in technique for its own sake than I was, and his early paintings are more advanced in some ways than mine. He came out of the art schools in Chicago, and had some influence from Richard Schmid, which explains his keen interest in design and technique. I liked Dan’s early works a lot, basically for the same reason I liked my own: I liked the models he chose and the expressions he gave them. They were sad beauties, and he was capturing their sadness well. He had an edge, and his technique was still restrained enough to express this edge. But it was an honest edge. He was not trying to have an edge, to be “edgy”. It was not preconceived, or brutal in any way. He was simply capturing an emotion (whether the model’s or his own does not really matter) and doing so in a mostly unconscious—and therefore artistic—way.
Or at least this was my reading of his paintings. I now think that I was one of the very few who saw this. Most of those I talked to only saw the pretty paint. I am not even sure that Dan ever saw it. He was so unconscious of it that perhaps he does not know it even now. At any rate he followed the pretty paint and not the emotion. In the next few years his technique became more and more beautiful in itself. His paint became gorgeous. He even surpassed his master Schmid in this. Around the time he won the people’s choice award at NAWA, and caused a scandal, his technique peaked. His painting Coffee was so beautiful that with hindsight there is little doubt it should have won Best of Show. But for me he had already lost the edge. His eye had wandered from the eye of the model—and what she was thinking and feeling, and what he desired—to the background and the dress and the raking light. The compositions now were always cluttered with beautiful paintable objects—reeds and flowers and apples and eggs and whatnot. The beautiful girl was becoming just another of these objects. She was only one of the things you looked at in admiring the paint.
Perhaps this was a function of his happy marriage and the requirement that his subject matter “mature” to fit it. I don’t know. But I found it nothing sort of tragic, to be honest. I wanted to see Dan painting nudes, painting real subjects, painting his lovers, painting his obsessions. Seeking the edge always. Not the edge between tone and tone, but the edge of his surety.
Possibly Dan felt this a bit himself, for soon he was pursuing the subjects of Christianity. He was trying valiantly to transcend technique, to transcend art for the sake of paint. Christianity may still be a viable subject, but in my opinion none of Dan’s Christian canvases approach the real emotion of his early work. There is a forced emotionalism in the Christian work, a lack of true depth. There is no excitement of the unknown, the mysterious meeting with the other, the heightened nerves and emotional ambiguity that I found in his early work. Only the desperate attempt to make an historical subject live up to its own press. Even his most successful and ambitious works in this line are flawed in very basic ways, ways that have nothing to do with technique. Hind’s Feet, for instance, is beautiful in many ways. The figures are worked into the background flawlessly. The color scheme is harmonious and the composition is well-balanced. The models might have been better chosen, especially the angels, who look a bit vapid, but all in all there is little to complain about as a matter of composition or paint handling (the paint is not as beautiful as it was ten years ago, but it is still better than most). No, the problem is in choosing a subject from The Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan’s popular allegory simply does not lend itself to high art. The best that can be done with it is illustration, and Gerhartz’s painting can only be judged in these terms. It is a very large, very nice illustration of a rather silly, simplistic story. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a dumbed-down Christianity for people not capable of Biblical subtleties and ambiguities. In my opinion, a Christian artist would be best advised to take subjects from the Bible itself, since he is already competing directly with the greatest artists in history—none of whom limited themselves by tying their canvases to inferior texts.
I have allowed myself this long digression on Dan Gerhartz because I find it the most useful thing in getting my specific point across. I have thought long and hard about Dan, since I have seen him from the beginning as one of my alter-egos, one of my time twins. Who better to learn from than a time twin? If I have diverged from Dan, it was by no accident. It has always been a conscious choice to keep to my path, even as Dan got famous for leaving it behind. Nor is Dan my only example in this. We all define ourselves both by alliance and opposition, and I have kept close watch on my fellow time travelers, to see what I might learn, positively and negatively.
Unfortunately, most of what I have learned has been of the negative sort. In studying my peers, I have discovered mainly what not to do. The appealing positive lessons have come from people long dead. This is no surprise, and no special mark against the living realists, seeing that we are all struggling to find a subject. But it does suggest to me that we would all be of better service to eachother if we criticized a bit more broadly and deeply. I have mentioned in other papers that the pre-20th century artists were much more outspoken and opinionated. Compared to us, they lived in a chaos of disagreement and invective. The discussion on art was wide-ranging and ubiquitous. The cafes were full of it, as were the papers. Not just backslapping and giving eachother awards, but animated dialogue on serious subjects. These artists did not talk only or mainly about technique. They talked about the paintings and what they expressed and should express.
This is how we differ from them. We are all politeness and manner. We are still under the thumbs of our kindergarten teachers: “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all.” When we do critique it is only about technique. The New Realists are obsessed with technique, and they rarely criticize eachother on anything else. This is true for two reasons: 1) an attack on subject matter is seen to be a personal attack, 2) the New Realist paintings are mostly about technique to start with. There is nothing to talk about except the technique. Dan Gerhartz is rare for offering up a painting that has a subject, and I am even rarer for criticizing him on it. Most don’t know the story he is illustrating, and those that do would never think of criticizing the subject as a subject. It is simply not important enough to comment on. Contrary to this, I take Dan seriously enough to find his subject matter important, and I take art seriously enough to comment on Dan’s place in it. This makes my critique a sign of caring, not the reverse.
Dan differs from most realists in that he has at least tried to find meaningful subject matter. Most realists seem satisfied with studies or with clever compositional novelties. Claudio Bravo is one of these. He is one of the great living technical masters, and yet I have never seen a single painting of his that I could admire. I look and think, yes, he has brilliantly painted that, but why? Why spend such a huge amount of time and energy painting a vase or a paper bag or a man with a blank look? Why choose to paint the world and then empty it of all emotion? It would be more efficient to just paint a black canvas, like the moderns. In addition, Bravo doesn’t veer from photographic realism enough to merit much artistic interest. That is to say, his paintings are so real that there is no room to slip in any expression. The photograph and the painting have exactly the same content. Bravo has not added anything by not using a camera. Furthermore, his subjects have no interest of their own. His people are as bland as his gourds. Often they are only props for hooded capes. One of his most ambitious pieces, Tentación de San Antonio, proves this beyond a doubt. The six-figure composition is a fake arrangement, and this is its entire purpose. He has set up a faux-Christian motif and then consciously undercut it by including a prop-man (with headphones) and a lamb that has messed the floor. Was this worth the effort of the painting? Not for me. It is not that it is sacrilegious, it is that it is silly and bland. Bravo has chosen to paint it simply because he can’t find anything meaningful to paint. Too bad.
Dino Valls is another who can’t find a meaningful subject, instead choosing to deal in surrealistic ironies and paradoxes. His technique is often amazing, but it is in the service of absolutely nothing. In a recent polyptych called Barathrum he suspends and prods a number of beautiful expressionless nude bodies, separating them into six mostly arbitrary panels. The details are often exquisite, but the work as a whole is depressing for its spiritual emptiness. Again, I am not critiquing Valls for his anti-Christian content or anatomical or medical bluntness: I am critiquing him not for his content but for his lack of content. The paintings are not really about anything beyond clever combination and mildly shocking juxtaposition. The emotional content is zero. In another recent work, Calami, Valls has painted a beautiful female child with pen nibs stuck into her cheek. This is a manufactured mystery that completely fails to resonate. Why does she have nibs stuck to her face? Who cares! The painting would have been much more powerful without the nibs and without the adult’s hand on her head. If Valls is making some statement about modern sociopolitics, it is one I am not even interested enough to pursue. I am not interested in manufactured psychological or sociopolitical lessons, especially those revealed by surrealism. I find this categorically shallow, like the faux paradoxes of Escher. High art is not about games and puzzles, or about unwrapping faux paradoxes. It may be about psychology, in a way, but it should be a psychology of emotions, directly revealed, not about surrealistic puzzles. These puzzles have a place, and are sometimes interesting as article illustrations or the like. But $100,000 paintings should hit higher levels of emotional discourse and subtlety. Art history should have learned this from Dali’s example, but the lesson is still undigested. I would suggest that Valls has some wonderful models he is mostly wasting. The nude children he has access to could be used to subtle effect, an effect that would be unique in this day and age. Unfortunately he always has to play some painterly game on their bodies, nullifying any effect they might have if painted directly and honestly.
Odd Nerdrum is the prince of this game. He does not chop bodies up or meld them into multiples like Valls, but he does use them for a hyper-conscious effect of his own. Nerdrum has created a one-dimensional pseudo-world of one-armed hermaphrodites and gun-toting onanists who prefer to flex their feet and stare at the sky, like acid freaks. Why? Nobody knows. Admittedly he is a master of weird cloud formations and bleak landscapes. His paint quality is highly interesting and his models are sometimes well-chosen for his effect. Nerdrum is also very ambitious: he has created a lot of big works. But what is it all in the service of? Absolutely nothing. It is all masturbation and Nerdrum knows it. Why else should he go to such pains to show us his own erection? It is the unsubtlest hint of all. He says, “Here I am, the great string puller, the man behind the curtain in an even phonier Oz. And I revel in it. Create a more meaningful universe and I will jack you off, too. Until then I am untouchable—except to myself.”
In a completely different vein is Nelson Shanks. Shanks is in the same general price range as Nerdrum, but has a vastly different clientele. His appeal is equally mysterious to me. His most famous painting is a portrait of Princess Diana. The royals are famous for their miscalculations in portraits, and this is another of them. Diana looks as if the taxidermist just got through with her. Over her stuffed form a frilly blouse overwhelms a short haircut and vapid face, and the hair itself looks more like a helmet than a coif. The background is flat and empty, and, worse, almost precisely the color of her skin. It is hard to tell if she is leaning into the wall, is drugged, or is propped up by a stick.
Not all of Shanks portraits are failures, not by a long shot. His portrait of the Pope is about as good as such a thing can be in this day and age. It is quite easy to see how Shanks became the top portraitist in the UK, especially if one browses the books of the portrait brokers. He deserves to be at the top of his field right now. He works hard, demands sittings, forces sitters to at least try to be interesting, and seems to enjoy the milieu he has chosen. His likenesses are usually perfect and he gives the client what he wants: lots of detail and sparkle. He does not have Ronald Sherr's graceful brushwork or Sherr's gift for subtlety, but he truly is better than just about anyone else in the field of portraiture in the world. Furthermore, Shanks is an energetic businessman, a serious scholar of his field, and a dedicated craftsman. Despite all this, though, he is being vastly oversold outside of portraiture. Without a paying sitter, he is mostly lost creatively. He tries to make up for a lack of insight and subtlety with color and clutter.
One of his most widely-published works is Sophia, an Anthology. This is a full-length nude of a slouching, bandy-legged young woman surrounded by bric-a-brac. In some ways, it is technically quite advanced—like all of Shank’s works. He likes a lot of finish, a lot of detail, and a lot of color, and he delivers them all in spades. But the overall effect here is far from pleasing to the eye. There is simply too much color. It fails to harmonize. Beyond this, the model’s rather attractive face is yet cold and aloof—her stare is off-putting. She appears to be trying to maintain her self-assurance in the circumstance by feigning pride, but this contradicts her pose, which is neither comely nor haughty. The effect is a mélange of mixed signals that is not even interesting as ambiguity.
Even worse is Grace, an older model with a figure to be proud of but an attitude that is nothing short of obnoxious. She appears to be trying very hard to maintain a pose of high emotion, one perhaps suggested to her by Shanks. But she comes off as a smug over-the-hill actress manqué. Shanks has rendered her skin with a realism that has become scary: it is so shiny it begins to resemble the plastic skin of a Duane Hanson sculpture. Shanks brags about using 24 colors in one patch of skin, but this is precisely the problem. Real skin under real conditions just doesn’t look like that; nor should it. Shanks’ skin looks like an over-saturated face on TV or in the magazines, where the editors and producers have boosted all the colors in order give everyone a Disney glow. I am not suggesting that Shanks uses photos, but photo film also does this. Almost all modern brands provide a color boost in the full range, so that the uneducated eye can revel in the Technicolor fun. Only certain brands of professional film still provide a “natural” palette of colors, and these films are not best sellers. As in film, so in painting, it would appear.
Such is also the case with Shanks’ portrait of Mary McFadden. Every inch is saturated to the nth degree. Everybody appears to be trying a bit too hard. Ms. McFadden is trying very hard to be provocative, in all the meanings of the word, and Shanks is using every trick at his disposal to help her to do so. Unfortunately they both come off as garish and gauche—as the sort of toxic people you would avoid at a dinner party.
As far as obnoxious portraits go, the portrait of Ed Notebaert would be hard to surpass. I don’t think it would be possible to affect a more malignant pose, and such levels of impudence and malice could only be achieved by the joint efforts of sitter and painter. It is hard to tell if Mr. Notebaert is aiming for “Mafia Don” or “Wrestling Promoter.”
Shanks finally crosses the line from distasteful to comic with Catalina, a white horse romping under an orange sky. I can almost hear Thomas Kinkaid gritting his teeth that he did not get there first.
Shanks desperately wants to appear cultivated and sophisticated. He is an unregenerate name-dropper (as can be seen by reading the articles on his website). Unfortunately the names he drops are a giveaway to his true level. Ronald Reagan, not a man known for sophistication; Les Wexner (whom Shanks is now suing for non-payment); and Madonna, with whom he sought unsuccessfully to do “some big stripper thing.”
Despite all this, Shanks has become one of the most revered realists of his time. Many people have accepted his own horn tooting, or have been cowed by his resume. The portrait societies have fawned over him, the magazines have finally discovered him, and students are flocking to him. Many of the young realists aspire to his garish color schemes and anal brushwork. All of this has been enabled by a complete lack of discussion and criticism. Maybe contemporary painters in realism are afraid of a libel suit for expressing an opinion, or maybe they really have no opinion except the one they get from above, from the burgeoning realist establishment. The levels of toadyism today are truly incredible. What we seem to have, in most cases, is little careerists—people looking for a foothold in the market at whatever cost. These people know that serious discussion is dangerous and unnecessary. What is most needful is efficient boot-licking.
We see this not only in regard to Shanks, but in regard to every other successful realist. We see the idolizing of the older, established artist, whether it is Leffel or Schmid or Daniel Greene or Burt Silverman or Bruno Lucchesi, or any of the rest. These artists are so spoiled by the accolades that they begin to believe them. They become blind to their own faults and their followers inherit this blindness. It thereby becomes self-perpetuating. They spend all day every day critiquing younger artists works and making pronouncements, but they never benefit from a critique themselves. Most younger artists are too timid to discuss them even in private. Can you imagine Courbet afraid to discuss Ingres or Delacroix, or Whistler afraid to discuss the Academicians, or Caravaggio afraid to discuss anyone at all?
All this false politeness is finally unhealthy. It will end up solidifying into a new Royal Academy of timid careerists, society portraitists and photo-copiers. Without a lively discussion the chaff will never separate from the wheat, and we will quickly become as entrenched as the avant garde.
Art critics have ignored realism for most of the twentienth century. You do not see critiques or reviews in the newspapers or magazines (except maybe of Rockwell recently, or of Wyeth when the Helga series came out). This has allowed the upper echelon of realism to exist in a bubble. The older artists, the ones who reached the top of the field in the last 20 years, probably haven’t suffered serious analysis from anyone but themselves since they were in school. A certain small segment of society was so desperate for realism that it kissed the hem of anyone with a shred of talent. These artists, most of whom are in their sixties or seventies now, were almost immediately enshrined, and they have become like little dictators. They are the workshop and society darlings, and they can do no wrong. If they fought with eachother, something might get said and there would be a possibility of progress. But for the most part they are all politeness and marketable good cheer. They are too old to squabble: it is best just to ride the wave.
I am not suggesting that we take seriously anything the avant garde critics have to say on the matter, but the lack of a serious conversation is detrimental to our field. It has become claustrophobic. If the older artists will not say anything interesting, then I guess it is up to the middle-age second tier to speak up.
I have been scouring the media and markets for years in search of some intelligent dialogue on art, finally concluding that there simply is none. The avant garde artists have kept quiet for years, since their silence is part of the division of labor. This leaves art criticism in that wing wholly to non-artist critics—people who frankly haven’t got a clue about anything. But within realism the situation is just as bad, though for different reasons. For decades the conversation has been kept up only by magazines like American Artist and the Artist’s Magazine—technical journals for Sunday painters and beginners. Realism has never had an analogue to ARTnews or Art in America—the mouthpieces for the avant garde. American Art Review is one of the go-to mags now for advertising, but their editorial content is non-contemporary. They write about Cecilia Beaux, not Odd Nerdrum or Nelson Shanks. Southwest Art is the closest thing to realist promotion, but it is very limited in its editorial breadth or depth. Its features are geared to sell ads, not to seriously discuss anything. A real opinion piece would be out of place there. None of the new small realist journals, many of which are online, want to ask the hard questions or do the hard work. They don’t want to offend anyone; they want to build markets; they want to make money; they want to socialize; they want to test their PR. The list-serves are likewise timid. Most are deathly afraid of flamewars. They forget that art history has been one long flamewar. And, unfortunately, wherever opinion erupts it devolves into childish name-calling and threats of lawsuits or crapflooding. No one seems able to hold up his end with cogent argument. The polemicists have become like the gun-toting gang members who are too sissified to mix it up with their fists. They shoot from a moving car and save themselves even the face recognition.
The closest we have come to a serious discussion was provided by Nerdrum in ARTnews in an 8-page paid ad in 1999 and a 5-page followup in 2000 (ARTnews is not about to devote editorial space to a critique of the avant garde). But his argument was such a shot into his own foot that ARTnews found it quite easy to forgive him for it, and to even have him on their cover a couple of years later. They realized that he was deviant and confused enough to be one of their own, and since making the cover he has not needed to pay for editorial space. The monthly full-page Forum ads have been more than enough in that regard.
Nerdrum leveled certain justified accusations against the avant garde and its philosophy, but the central point of the article was to give the avant garde the title “art” and to keep for himself the title “kitsch.” For some reason this seemed to him to be a spark of genius, on the level of making lemonade from lemons. But the argument only set everyone’s teeth on edge and it has mostly been forgotten. Nerdrum brought Kant into the discussion to give it ballast, claiming that Kant was a pietist and an anti-sensualist. While this is true in the context that Nerdrum intended, it is not really to the point. Kant’s influence on art was minimal at best. One only need look at the timeline. Plenty of sensualists postdated Kant. Delacroix, for example, could ignore Kant with impunity, as could Rodin another half-century later. The tide did not turn until after Rodin, and it turned for mostly non-Kantian reasons.
The most mysterious thing about Nerdrum’s argument is his claim that Kitsch is about the “smiling open face,” the gypsy girl, the couple on the beach, the moose on the edge of the wood. These subjects can be kitschy (or not), but the problem is that Nerdrum doesn’t paint any of these things. He creates a dichotomy, implying that he naturally falls into the Kitsch camp. But he doesn’t. His subject matter and treatment put him far closer to the avant garde camp. That is why he has finally gained acceptance by them. The only thing kitschy about Nerdrum is his realism, which was kitschy only by the fiat of Modernism—a fiat that has been rescinded. Lucian Freud has convinced the avant garde that realism, of a sort, can be cool. And so they have let John Currin and Jenny Saville into the game as well. That is the door that Nerdrum entered through. For him to pretend that he is the ally of the gypsy painter and the moose painter is absurd. He has done everything possible to distance himself from sensualism of that sort. There is absolutely no warmth in Nerdrum’s work. He has purposely painted extreme alienation. He seems to think that because his strange people defecate in full view and have erections they are sensualists. The truth is his canvases have almost no kitsch appeal—that is to say mass appeal or popular appeal. Realism is not a guarantee of kitsch status. I am not holding this against him. I have no great fondness for kitsch. I am just pointing out that his claim to the term is dubious.
In my opinion Nerdrum paints avant garde realism, a realism that is tied to current sociopolitics. Nerdrum is not old-fashioned, kitschy, or a sensualist. Delacroix and Rodin were sensualists. A viewer wants to have sex with Rodin’s Danaide or Andromeda. Nerdrum’s freaks only make a viewer want to start recycling or using birth control to avoid the Mad Max future he has shown us. Thomas Kinkaid is kitsch, Pino is kitsch, Nerdrum is not kitsch.
In all this barrage of multiple tropes, people seem to have forgotten what kitsch is. Kitsch originally referred to low quality art produced for a popular market. It included mass-produced art replicas—like 6-inch plastic Davids and Pietas—as well as other cheap decorative pieces for the mantel or the bookshelf or the refrigerator magnet. I think it has been fair to extend the definition as a term of abuse toward expensive art that is also of low quality and that appeals strictly to the lowest, most vulgar levels of the popular market. However, we must make several distinctions. 1) Not everything that is popular is kitsch. Some things of high quality are nonetheless popular and are not kitsch. Examples are Beethoven, Michelangelo and Jane Austen. Almost everyone likes the David—this does not make it kitsch. 2) Not all mass-marketed things are kitsch. Films and music and books are mass-marketed, but not all are of low-quality. 3) A thing does not have to be “high art” to avoid being kitsch. Meaning, it does not have to be serious, elevated, sublime, or deep. It simply has to be well made. An example would be the TV show Friends, which most people would probably cite as a prime example of kitsch. Despite being popular, mass marketed, and certainly not high art, Friends avoids being kitsch by being well made. The same might be said of Frasier or Cheers. These shows are all well-acted, well-written, and well-produced. Kitsch is of “low quality”—we do not have a match. 4) Kitsch is determined by treatment, not by subject. No subject is categorically a kitschy subject. Paintings of ballerinas are generally considered kitschy, but Degas is not kitsch. Paintings of animals are generally considered kitschy, but Landseer is not kitsch. Beggar children are generally considered kitschy, but Murillo is not kitsch. Gypsy girls are considered to be kitsch, but Sargent and Bouguereau are not kitsch. Mothers with children are considered kitschy, but Leonardo and Raphael are not kitsch. They are not kitsch because they are not of low quality. All are painted with skill and genuine emotion.
Thomas Kinkaid is the current master of kitsch. His work is kitsch because it is poorly painted and poorly conceived, and because marketing is its sole raison d’etre. Lighthouses and cottages can be painted in a non-kitschy way (see the Wyeths) but unfortunately Kinkaid has not discovered this. Technically, Kinkaid is quite simply the worst famous artist in history. Beyond technique, a lot of it has to do with intent. Kinkaid’s intention is to appeal to people with bad taste, since he knows that these people far outnumber anyone else. Every “artistic” decision he makes is therefore informed solely by sales. Recently a couple of artists hired a polling company to discover what the masses really wanted. It was discovered that what they most wanted was bright colors in cheery landscapes. Kinkaid had discovered this by his own methods long before. To a real artist, Kinkaid is completely transparent. His work is disingenuous from top to bottom. Even before one enters his gallery and gets the Christian hardsell (“did you know Thomas Kinkaid is a Christian and that he loves his wife?” asks the greeter at the door of the mall-shop) or before one sees the highlighters doing their PR presentations, it is clear that every glob of paint was squeezed from the tube of greed.
A step up from Kinkaid is Pino. Pino has a lot more skill than Kinkaid, but he does not merit the Friends exception. Pino does not get a pass because despite his skill, the paintings are not well made. Only the brushwork and drawing are good (the drawing is accurate enough, but completely inexpressive). The composition, color harmonies, and concepts are very poor. What we have are a few mannequins in aprons surrounded by flowers. The poses are always wooden, the faces empty, the eyes dead, the emotional content zero. Pino has created a highly colored landscape out of his figures, a cheery expressionless little glimpse into a sugary nowhere. Pino is a promotional phenomenon and nothing more, proof that enough market research and advertising can buy fame.
Kitsch is not only to be found in mall shops and realist galleries. Kitsch and the avant garde are not mutually exclusive. Ever since Andy Warhol did so, the avant garde has embraced kitsch. What were Warhol’s Marilyns except a cooption of kitsch into the highest brackets of expensive art? The same could be said of Lichtenstein’s cartoons. These works had a supposed theoretical side, too, it is true, which the critics used to make commentary on kitsch; but as artifacts they were just kitsch out of context. That is, these works were bad on purpose, but the artist wanted to deny his audience the usual vulgar pleasure. He did this by putting them in an intellectual context. The viewer was addressed as an intellectual, undercutting his ability to enjoy the works on a vulgar level, and causing unease.
These examples suggest another thing: not all bad art is kitsch. The avant garde is always of low quality, usually on purpose, but only some of it is kitsch. Most modern works are in no danger of developing a popular audience. There is no chance that a majority will ever like them for artistic reasons. They aren’t kitsch, they are just awful. A large proportion aren’t even art, by any meaningful definition. Found objects and other minimally manipulated objects are not art, and neither are concepts or ideas that do not really jell into artifacts. Samplings are most often not art, and most photographs are not art.
At about the same time that Nerdrum was making his case in ARTnews, a group of realist painters and neo-classical musicians started a movement called the “Derriere Guard.” It has already faded and has recently been replaced by a newer movement, “Slow Art.” The two groups are similar in intent, and are both earnest and mostly correct in their main assertions. The problem is that neither group seems to understand anything about public relations or the power of the word. This is especially strange in the case of Derriere Guard, which included the writer Tom Wolfe. It seems that Wolfe might have clued them into the malaprop connotations of “derriere guard.” Not only does the term imply reaction, backsliding, and regression, but it also implies incompetence and timidity. Those bringing up the rear are the dummies and the cowards, protected by the line in front of them. Beyond this, the term also makes one think of the other English translation of derriere. The movement is therefore the butt-guard of art. The butt of everyone’s jokes. It does not matter that derriere guard has other more positive connotations. All the potential connotations must be taken into consideration when predicting PR.
You can immediately see that “Slow Art” also suffers from most of these problems. “Slow Artists” are a bit thick in the head. Like Special Olympians, they have to try a bit harder. As with naming a child, you should see these things coming and do your best to avoid them. "Slow Art" comes from the writing of Robert Hughes, I believe, where in context it does not seem so risible. But when used as a guild title it can only fail to inspire.
Both groups appear to suffer from over-confidence. Like Nerdrum, they think they can make lemonade from lemons. They don’t have to ponder what name to take, since they can turn any name to gold.
The UK's analogue to Derriere Guard is Stuckism. The Stuckists take their name from a quote of Saatchi darling Tracey Emin, in which she accused the realists of being "stuck, stuck, stuck." Already you can see that the Stuckists have made the same error as Nerdrum: they have allowed themselves to be defined by the enemy. Nerdrum embraced the epithet "kitsch" and the Stuckists have accepted "stuck." Like Nerdrum, they see this as a brilliant response. It is not. It is a fatal error. The adjective "stuck" has negative connotations, and these connotations cannot be turned even if allied to the greatest art in history. Michelangelo himself could not re-define the word. He could only make it appear very very inappropriate, and thereby possibly amusing.
But the Stuckists are not Michelangelos. Very far from it. Although most of their complaints against the avant garde are correct and reasonable and most of their goals are earnest and useful—and might be in the service of art—it is unfortunately the case that the work of the Stuckists doesn't much support their goals or complaints. Their artistic abilities are little better than the avant garde, and their politics veers into the same sort of working class rot that taints Emin's work. Not that I am against the working class in any way. I am certainly not for any return to the conditions of 19th century England, where the workers were exploited and the aristocracy complacent. But art is not mainly about working class politics, or any politics. Art should be a classless enterprise, one that reveals personal moods, emotions, desires, and ideas, not group warfare.
The Stuckists agree explicitly with me on this, I know, but they still manage to ally themselves to anti-art tendencies by arguing against the necessity of technique and by campaigning against "elitism". They don't seem to realize that any useful enterprise is elitist, in that some people will be better at it than others. Elitism as privilege for rich people is wrong; elitism as more recognition for better painters is not wrong. Both might be said to be "natural", but the first is not a proper foundation for society. People rarely get rich for being better people, for a start. And privilege and recognition are two different things. Better artwork must be more highly esteemed by any society, but this does not mean that the better artist needs to live or act like a lord. All this being true, art must still be concerned with quality. Quality is hierarchic and implies a sort of elite. Quality also requires a mastery of technique.
The Stuckists, often by their alliances, and sometimes by their bullet points, dismiss quality as a necessary feature of art. They have allied with the punks, who are fiercely anti-hierarchical, except in the strangest of ways. The Stuckists want a universal art, an art of the streets. Their manifestoes sometimes seem to encourage mainly art as therapy, a therapy in which "artist" is the universal appellation by right. The Stuckist stresses that he embraces all those whom he attacks (though it is not clear in what form this embrace manifests itself). For me, it would seem to be more efficient to do one or the other (attack or embrace), but the Christian attitude is better suited to a movement that wants to form a universal brotherhood where everyone is an artist.
Universal brotherhoods are fine with me, but not everyone is an artist. We must create brotherhoods based on our common humanity, not on specific talents. It can only be further degrading to art to link it to politics, even the best of politics. Trading conceptual propaganda that props up capitalist markets for realist propaganda that underscores global fraternity is not worth pursuing.
Beyond this, the Stuckists need to spend less time writing manifestoes and more time learning to paint. Some of their work is cute in a childish way, but most is just awful. It has no hope of being a viable alternative to Modernism.
Now to switch gears and mention a few positive examples in the realist scene. In my opinion one of the finest figure painters under 50 is Ronald Sherr. If I had to hire someone to paint my portrait it would be Sherr. I would not change places with him for the world, but I find some of his work really smashing. I would not change places with him simply because I have no desire to paint presidents and other boring and corrupt people in suits. I have no desire to have 5-year backlogs of Republican CEO’s and scary old ladies. I went a step or two down that road and ran screaming. But when the rich people leave him alone for a moment, Sherr really produces some beautiful things.
I first saw his work at the Hubbard competition, the prize that helped him get his start. His work there, though highly promising, was not fantastic. The gilding was interesting, and the painting was pretty, but it had some weaknesses, too. I was not at all sure that it was better than the Jamie Wyeth hanging nearby (Jamie doomed himself by asking $300,000 for his painting, but saying that he was willing to accept the $250,000 purchase prize). However, since then I have become convinced of Sherr’s talent. His spread in American Artist a couple of years ago was very impressive. His painting of the oriental girl was daring in color and yet completely successful. The little boy’s head was charming. Sherr has a huge talent. I hope he will soon make enough money to allow himself some time away from the market, before he burns out. I want to see more experiments with oriental girls from him, and the like. I would be satisfied if I never saw another portrait of a man in a suit.
[Addendum, 4/27/05. I hate to undercut some of the only praise in this paper, but I just saw some recent drawings of Sherr at Edith Caldwell Gallery. Sherr is now doing very large pencil drawings of mannequins. What is the emotional draw of mannequins at this point in history? Has the whole world gone mad? Something very strange is going on here, but I will save it for another paper, one where I psycho-analyze the entire realistic impulse as it now manifests itself. Sounds like a page-turner, doesn't it?]
Yuqi Wang is another artist under 50 who has a huge talent. Unlike Sherr, Wang’s talent is mostly being neglected. In a fair cosmos, he would be feted as one of the top five artists in the world. As it is, he is mostly unknown. His best works—that I know of—are Year of the Dog, Autumn of Mountain, Kora, and Black Grass. If Shanks’ Sophia sold for a quarter million, Year of the Dog should be worth 5 million. If Jasper Johns’ Gray Numbers is worth 40 million, then Black Grass is worth 40 billion. Unfortunately, Wang does not seem to want to paint like this anymore. I met him a couple of years ago and he appeared to want to go in another, less literal direction. Where he is now, creatively, I cannot say. But I can say that, based simply on the four works listed above, he has already earned a place in any of the finest American museums, museums who are fools not to pursue him. And I hope he will continue to provide the world with more works like these—there are far too few being painted, and not a handful who can paint them (if you think Shanks’ hands are fine, check out Wang’s—I will take the latter any day of the week). In fact, I will go out on a limb and state that there is no one else who can do what Wang is doing. If he does not do it, it will not get done.
The greatest artist of the 20th century is Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth is not a New Realist, but he is a 20th century realist. I therefore include him here as our greatest living mentor. Wyeth is not the technical powerhouse that Nerdrum is, but he has two important qualities that Nerdrum apparently will never find: subtlety and focus. Wyeth has also never needed to call attention to himself. His name guaranteed him attention and he has only needed to follow his heart. What Wyeth has understood that almost no one else has—even those others from well-known families—is that painting is a form of direct communication. That is, it is an immediate emotional response, both by the artist when choosing the subject and by the viewer when looking at the painting. This response does not require huge canvases, bright colors, technical fireworks, clever juxtapositions, social-political or psychological ideas, literary content, winking at the critics, surreal effects, or ironic poses. It only requires capturing the subtle effect before you. Not an effect of light or composition only, but an effect of the presence of the person posing for you. This effect does not need to be amplified, but it should never be suppressed.
Some were shocked at the adulterous implications of his Helga series, but for true artists this was beside the point. It was clear at first glance that this series was not produced to provoke or titillate. If Wyeth was drawn to Helga mainly by desire, this was just as it should be. This was a genuine response to the world, at least. Here was an un-manufactured obsession. Here was emotional honesty, at long last. Here was the necessary conjunction of artistic skill and meaningful subject matter, so rarely achieved. From this series came several true masterpieces, the greatest for me being Black Velvet, Cape Coat, and Braids.
I have stated elsewhere that I wish Wyeth could be encouraged to speak out more, but the example he has set on canvas and paper has been strong and unwavering. Artists would do well to study it closely, to understand why smallish, single-figure, low-tone works can be the highest art. Wyeth makes his 20th century competitors look like ostentatious barbarians, loading themselves with jewels and gold and silks in order to make up for their coarseness. In Wyeth we have quietude and subtlety and restraint at the same time that we have the deepest and most honest emotions.
In closing, I will tie myself to this long commentary on realism. This paper has been my extended and rather late answer to Dan Gerhartz and to those who have been unable to see past or through my restrained technique. To those who found my colors drab, my compositions simple, my figures lonely, or my technique wanting in any other way, I suggest that they look again to see what is there rather than what is not there. If I have not painted exactly like other artists of my time, perhaps I have had a reason. If I have followed Van Dyck and Whistler and Wyeth and other low-toned artists, perhaps it was not because I could not afford large tubes of cadmium and cobalt or could not manage a full palette. If I pursued neither high finish nor an impressionistic brushwork, it was because I had a use for neither. If I ignored the dictates of the market, it was not because I was a fool, but because I knew the market to be foolish.
I recognize as well as anyone the weaknesses in my own work, and know full well that some of the criticisms I have made in this paper apply to me as well as to those I criticize. Some of my works do not transcend illustration, some are technical failures. I wrote this paper not from any desire to hold myself up as the ultimate example of anything, but to counter the current trend of technical hyper-criticality and artistic non-criticality. To put it in a nutshell, the new realists tend to judge art solely or mainly by technical standards. They miss seeing that technique is just a means, and that a restrained technique is often a much keener artistic tool. All paintings should be judged first on their artistic success, and only afterwards on their technical success. These two successes are linked but are not the same. A painting with a lot of perfect technique can be awful, and a painting with very little noticeable technique can be perfect. Even a painting with some bad passages can be great, as the old masters have proved. The important things have to be right, but the rest can often vary to a great degree. The greatest artists are not the ones who polish up every square inch of a painting until it reflects like the sun or who pack their canvases with every species of cleverness known to art. They are the ones who know what their own best subjects are. They are the ones who know what the important things in a painting are—the ones they have to get right. And they know how to leave the rest as just a suggestion, so that the main theme is never obstructed by clutter or by-products or bragging. This is the upper level of technique, the synthesis of technique: a level few reach because few are taught that it exists.
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