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An Open Letter to the
National Portrait Gallery

by Miles Mathis

We, the undersigned, have attached our names to this letter in order to protest the appropriation of the National Portrait Competition by a narrow political faction. This portrait competition is sponsored by the trust of the late Virginia Outwin Boochever. Ms. Outwin Boochever underwrote this prize because she loved figurative drawings, paintings and sculpture. From the earliest stages of planning for this prize, it was clear that her intention was to encourage art by the old definition: art as beauty, as subtlety, as depth, as direct emotion, as skill, as craft. She did not desire nor foresee that this prize would become another medal on the breast of the avant garde. She did not intend to subsidize further research into Theory or socio-politics, she did not intend to subsidize divisiveness or activism, nor did she intend to encourage victimhood and the culture of complaint. It is our belief that the bequest of Ms. Outwin Boochever has been diverted against her wishes into channels of which she would not approve. We ask that the museum trustees, directors, and her family all read the terms of the gift and consider whether those terms have been breached.
      Furthermore, we ask Congress to consider whether the National Portrait Gallery should be the tool of a political faction. It is our belief that a national prize given through a national institution should not be factionalized in any way whatsoever. A national portrait prize, of all things, should not be judged politically. Entrants should not be required, implicitly or explicitly, to present their political bona fides, and jurors should not represent only one wing of any multi-partisan issue, whether that issue is artistic or political.
      According to the 2006 prospectus, we should expect future portrait competitions to be even more factionalized, since these will be dominated by photography, electronic and digital media, and, one expects, installations and concept pieces. The avant garde clearly intends to transform this prize piece by piece, to steal it in slow motion, so that by the time it is completely digested and consumed the original intent of Ms. Outwin Boochever will be long in the grave. The 2006 exhibition already featured as finalists and award winners portraits that did not contain a human face. If this trend continues we can expect a complete gutting of the competition, and, in a very few years, the exhibition of white canvases, roadkill, empty rooms, ballpens, tincans, and feces as “portraits.”

Having said that, we would remind all recipients and readers of this letter that we, the undersigned, do not ourselves represent any political faction. Some of us are on the left, some are on the right, and some are in the middle. Some of us are politically active, some are not. What we all agree on is that art should not be the political tool of either side or any side. Art may have political implications, but it should not be required to be politically inspired, or to have political content. The artist should not have to wear his politics on the surface of every canvas or sculpture, or attach them with a blurb. Furthermore, beauty should not be disallowed as a category: it should not be written off as a regressive political idea, dismissed as manufactured tool of repression, or impugned as a outmoded convention of patriarchy or aristocracy. As artists we know that beauty exists and we demand the right to admit it.
      We know from past experience what the postmoderns will answer. They will say that if they are a faction, so are we. More than this, they will claim that we are ideologues, or worse, demagogues. If modernism and postmodernism are ideologies, then traditional art must be, too. But art, properly defined, is not an ideology; it is a field of endeavor. It is the upper end of craft and expression. We did not manufacture this definition to suit ourselves, or even take it from past writers or philosophers. This definition was created over thousands of years by artists themselves. It is implicit in the action of an entire field, over millenia. Seeking or demanding excellence in a field is not demagoguery. We claim that art is not about ideas, so how could we be idealogues? We desire to re-expand art back to its original boundaries, beyond politics and Theory. How could we be factionalists? With our signatures below we have included and allied both right and left, something the avant garde cannot do and has no desire to do.

As we have mentioned the avant garde several times above, we will be asked what we mean by that term. Simply, we mean the tendency to define and judge art based on political or theoretical intent rather than aesthetic content. To be more specific, we object to the historical transition which has placed the ultimate control of art in the hands of writers and administrators, and we object to this because it has destroyed the viability of visual art. These writers and administrators have purposefully jettisoned artistic forms and conventions in order to replace them with forms and conventions they can better comprehend and control. As a primary example, the judges of the 2006 Outwin Boochever Portrait Prize—six of seven of whom were non-artists—requested the submission of explanatory blurbs to accompany all submissions. They then awarded prizes and commendations to those entries whose blurbs fit a specific rubric of political and theoretical discourse and dismissed those entries that did not.
      We do not mean to imply that all writers and administrators must be so intrusive, but the fact is that the movement in art has been to encourage the ascent of the most intrusive to the highest levels of art administration. From there they have remade art in their own image, dispensing with the traditional content of art—which they found to be too subtle and elevated—and replacing it with content they were already adept at manipulating—politics and theory. They have explicitly transformed visual art into an art of ideas: specifically, socio-political ideas.
      While we do not deny the importance of politics or ideas, we do not believe that allowing art to be defined by politics or ideas has been useful, either artistically or politically. It has led to the degeneration of the artifact and to the degeneration of the artist. As this contest made clear, even those artists who still study technique have prostrated themselves at the feet of critics and curators in order to advance their careers. As some have pointed out, this has always been a danger to the artist, and to all who wanted to succeed in any arena. But in the past the artist who desired success only had to curry favor with his client; now he or she must curry favor with an entire field of various administrators, with an ever-expanding political agenda, and with a rigid theoretical framework that contains them all. In a milieu that promises ultimate creative freedom, the artist actually has very little.

We suggest in the strongest possible terms that this competition should be and was intended to be an inclusive one—not just inclusive in terms of race or sex or state, but inclusive in terms of artistic allegiance. It should be clear to anyone who reads the prospectus or views the list of finalists that there was a strong bias against the traditional definition and content of art. This preference for traditional definitions, though widespread among both artists and viewers of art, found no place on the jury and almost no place among the finalists. Even traditional looking paintings were chosen not for this look but because they played to the judges’ political prejudices.
      As a solution, we suggest that a majority of the jurors should be artists, and that these artists should faithfully represent those who can be expected to enter. That is to say, if a given percentage of artists in the country prefer traditional definitions, then that percentage should be represented on the jury. A jury should demand excellence; it should not demand ideological agreement. When a national institution runs a national prize competition in a democratic nation, we believe this is what should be expected of it. We do not expect that it will have been hijacked by any political faction.

When writers and administrators are invited to sit on the jury, they should be invited because they have shown a true regard for the history of art and for the autonomy of artists. They should be invited because they have proven themselves to be perceptive and open-minded, generous and earnest, learned and serious. And, like the artists on the jury, they should be representative of those who will enter, not contemptuous of them.
      By the same logic, in any contest that includes sculpture, sculptors should be represented on the jury in a reasonable proportion, and should be represented as finalists and award winners in a reasonable proportion to the number who entered. This representation might exceed the proportion of entrants in exceptional cases, for instance when the very best entrants are sculpture; but it should never fall far short of it. In the 2006 Outwin Boochever, only 2 of 51 finalists were sculptors, and no prizes were awarded to sculpture. None of us believe that those numbers represent the percentage of actual entrants, but even were it proved to be so, a contest that explicitly includes sculpture as an artistic category equal in prestige to painting should take greater pains to exhibit it.

Although the Maginot Line in art is now everywhere, we have chosen to make a special stand here on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery, since we feel that this is our home. It is has been one of our havens and it was always intended to be just that. Ms. Outwin Boochever felt the same way we do, and because of that she chose to underwrite this competition. She loved art as excellence, not as innovation; art as high achievement, not as political activism or complaint; serious and earnest art, not ironic or campy art; art as beauty and depth and subtlety, not as object of disgust or shock or brutality or deconstruction. We are here because we are sure we have allies here, not just the ghost of Ms. Outwin Boochever, but among the current directors, docents, and staff. We have allies in the National Gallery nearby and in the other departments of the Smithsonian. We have allies in Congress. And we have allies all across the country, people from every state, of both sexes and all races, from all political parties. The avant garde has told you that all traditionalists in art are neo-conservatives, but this is not true. We have a broad-based coalition, possibly the most broad-based coalition in America. Even more than that, we have a majority.
      That is right, a large majority of Americans prefer art by the old definition. Most people are not just apathetic about avant garde art, they actively dislike it. The avant garde will answer that this majority is wholly made up of the ignorant and uneducated, but this is nothing more than a slur. Many of the most highly educated people in this country, liberal and conservative alike, find the avant garde to be dishonest, oversold, and both artistically and politically bankrupt. The avant garde pretends to be populist, but it is not popular. It wraps itself in progressive ideas, but it is not progressive. It has created a priesthood of faux-experts who have propagandized art and redefined it to enrich themselves. It has taken over the universities and forbidden students from making the objects they want to make. Its dominance is felt even in secondary schools, where teenagers are discouraged from painting and sculpting and instead encouraged to “act out,” to psychoanalyze themselves, to deconstruct their surroundings, and to present everyday objects as artifacts of profound interest. This “empowers” a few of the laziest and most disingenuous students, but ends up turning the rest off art for good. In some cases school boards have used this as an excuse to ditch art classes altogether.

We are here to call for a vocal alliance with all those who are distressed by all these facts: those who desire to go to museums without having their intelligence insulted or their eyes assaulted; those who want the freedom to create art on their own terms, rather than on the terms of critics and curators; those who want to see their children taught art, not the art of subterfuge. Taking the National Portrait Competition back from the avant garde is just one step in this. Future battles for the universities and galleries and magazines will be more difficult, but it all starts here. If we cannot win the battle for one of our central shrines, then we have no hope storming the fortified and moated castles in New York City and elsewhere. It is our hope that all who receive this letter or come across it by chance or fate will join our alliance. We could not reach you in time to add your name to our list below, but it is not too late to write to Congress, the National Gallery, and the Outwin Boochever family. Tell them how important art is to you. Tell them that it is one subject that you do not want to see factionalized. Tell them that the National Portrait Gallery is a place for portraits, not for political preaching or activism. Or pencil your name in below and send them this letter. We will be glad to have done some of your work for you.

Signatures as of 5/18/2007
Miles Mathis
Graydon Parrish
Nelson Shanks (read his comment)
Jeremy Lipking
Van Nielsen
Scott Burdick
Susan Lyon
Ralph Oberg
Virgil Elliott
Jeffrey Watts
Peter Adams
Bryce Cameron Liston
Gianni Monteleone
Allan Hart
Brian Hart
Jay Tabares
Kyle Vincent Thomas
Lisa Gloria
Scott Bartner
Iian Neill
Anne Nelson-Sweat
Shirley de Maio
Linda Tippetts
Donald Demers
Monique E. Bonneau
Lacey Lewis
Richard W. Cohen
Mary Ploegsma
Logan Hagege
David Rourke
Chad Barksdale
Mike Martin
John Cox
Ellen White
Nancy Franke
Bruce Newman
William Wray
Iion Finger
Ray Roberts
John P. Weiss
Allyn Bruty
Greg Scheibel
Gary Adcock
Julia Lundman Midlock
Dan Schultz
Sarah Schultz
Scott Serafica
Gregg Claussen
Leslie Jackson
John C. Tylk
Darrell Anderson
Ralph James
Scott Boyle
P. Carolyn Gallon
Eleinne Basa
Sandra Dodson
Rustam Khasanov
Michael McConnell
Nancy Carroll
Jeanette Eya-Zeissig
Barbara Stirling
Aaron Seckman
Jason High
Mark vanderVinne
Annapurna McQueen
Brantley Phillips
Joseph Bednarski
Mark Junge
Eric Hanson
S. Jacqueline Nicolini
Rod Munro
Scott Affleck
Linda Harris Reynolds
Sharon Knettell

Postscript: If you would like to add your name to this petition, please drop me an email saying so. It is not required, but for statistical purposes I would also like to know what state you are from and your political affiliations, if any. If you are a professional artist or are working in the arts in any way, you can also let me know. Feel free to circulate the letter anywhere you like.

This letter was mailed to the NPG and Congress on July 16, 2007. Thanks to all who signed, and nertz to the rest of you. Miles

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