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A Letter to Tom Wolfe

by Miles Mathis

I just read your paean to Frederick Hart in the New York Times Magazine, and what astonished me (and heartened me—lest you wonder which direction this letter means to go) most is that the Times would publish it.  Of course it may be that this can be dismissed as simply due to your stature in the world of publishing.  I hope, with you, that it is a sign of something more.

       I am writing to encourage, nay beg, you to follow up this antiphonal article with another on a living artist.  As you so compellingly stated, what is most wanted—by the artist, but also by the public—is some notice, in respected journals, of those artists who deserve notice.  If Classicism is indeed renascent in the 2010's, it will be due to the rise of a number of talented and charismatic individuals who can somehow transcend the formidable institutional barriers set up by Postmodernism.  A new Rodin or Rubens to capture the imagination of a whole generation and to address the latent expectations of a broad base of people about what art still can and should be.  Like every other sector, it will require leadership, figureheads, forces of galvanization, stars.  It must compete with other creative media and accept the necessity of publicity. 

      You state that, like clockwork, new centuries have rung in new styles.  But it must be admitted that this century's end is qualitatively unlike any other before: Modernism, for all its aesthetic and theoretical imposture, is a bearded student of politics and marketing, and it knows its game well.  As you have noted, it has closed the circle.  It controls production, theory, criticism, education, exhibition, sale, and in large part resale.  It is nearly impervious to public opinion.   Public opinion has been against it from the time of Greenberg.  Why should public opinion begin to affect it now?  Even those, like Robert Hughes, who trumpeted it in the 60's, admitted it had imploded by 1980.  But somehow it has survived its own theoretical deadend and even the art market crash of the late 80's.  With the success of Sensations at the Brooklyn Museum, and the influx of new British "energy" (from the PR coups of the Tate Modern and all that continues to happen worldwide), it would be naive to believe that we now face a downsized opponent.  For too long it has been thought that classicism must re-emerge based on its own merit.  I no longer believe this.  It will continue to survive, and to interest a chosen few, on its merits.  But it must have the help of the media if it is ever to regain the cultural influence and scope it enjoyed in the 19th century.  Even then, it was writers, or the artists speaking for themselves, that made artists famous.  Baudelaire, Zola, Swinburne, and Ruskin were an important link between the visual artists they admired and a wider public.  Whistler held his own pen and propped up a career that otherwise might have completely foundered (during his lifetime).  This power of the word may be intrusive; in fact, it surely is.  But it cannot be denied.

      This all goes to say that fine art will become fine again only if those with fine judgment take an active interest in it again.  All of us have been far too quiet for far too long.  We must have more patronage, more allies in ink, more institutional support:  there is so much work to be done, work on a broad basis, and unless artists have some help from non-artists, this work cannot be accomplished.  Not against the numbers we face.  In 1970, the number in NYC may have been no more than 3000.  But since then it has increased.  Art administration at all levels, in all major and minor institutions throughout the country, is monolithicly Modern.  Here in Texas, you still can't get a show at a museum, a grant from anywhere, admission to an MFA program, if you aren't modern.  Modernism has drawn all those with the least talents and the least scruples, those with the best noses for agitprop, and set them to digging trenches for 50 years.  They are now fairly well fortified.

      We will win.  Don't misunderstand me.  But not by being "centerists."  By biting with every tooth in our head.  I am doing everything I can.  When I am not painting or sculpting, I am writing articles, letters to editors everywhere, counter-criticism, books—seeking  allies, arguing theory, planning strategy.  I just sent a portfolio to Prince Charles, suggesting he set me up in a pavilion across from the new Bankside Galleries with just a banner that says, That is not art.  This is art.  I would do the rest.  I ask you to point an intelligent finger my way next time you have a moment between novels.  I will make it worth your while, historically.

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