Why can’t we just get along? You know, the realist painters and the contemporary art world. The zombie-formalists and the zombie romanticists. The former clad in the armor of ironic cynicism and the latter wielding the shield of authentic emotion, both resurrected from a by-gone era.
I’ve been wondering that lately. Why is the art world so divided? I’m speaking of the local art world. The world where pretty babbaling brook paintings run up against abstract de Kooning-esque angst-filled oils for consideration in the same show. How do they compare? Inevitably the judge of the show is in one camp or the other and his or her camp naturally wins. When people speak candidly about the “other camp” it’s not very polite. Let’s take a look at what happened.
First a disclaimer
I’m no art historian. I’m a realist painter born in the age of irony. I went to art school and found my home in the illustration department because realism was frowned upon in the fine art department. During my years at Pratt Institute Andrew Wyeth had a retrospective show at the Metropolitan Museum. This was an outrage and all the fine artists I knew boycotted the museum. I saw the show but kept my nose at a slight tilt so that if anyone saw me looking they would know it was with distain. I didn’t want to look naive.
Let’s go back in time to 1839.
A baby was just born in the South of France to an affluent family. A family that could afford to have a portrait done with the new amazing technology of the day. A photograph! By that time Daguerreotypes were all the rage of the up and coming middle class. Artists were already using the photograph as a tool, but only on the sly! One artist caught using a photo ended up in a lawsuit.By the time that baby was a young man perhaps the idea of creating a likeness in paint seemed a bit redundant. Photographs were beautiful in-and-of themselves and any silly could copy a photograph. What was the value of a painting beyond a likeness? Texture, color, composition….these were avenues worth exploring.
So that baby, Paul Cezanne, did that and changed the art world forever. I recently read a quote of his from a much loved art newsletter by Robert Glenn, “Everything we see falls apart, vanishes. Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us the taste of her eternity.” (Paul Cezanne) This is certainly a bigger challenge than rendering an accurate portrait, don’t you think? I just have to add that Cezanne used photography as reference too!
Of course the world was changing in vast ways at that time so we can’t pin the modernist movement in art solely on the introduction of the photograph. Cities were growing, the industrial revolution was changing daily life and World War One had people reexamining their beliefs.
Meanwhile realists still worked on depicting the new life: George Bellows, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Grant Wood and the ever popular Edward Hopper. But the world’s attention was mainly on those deeply influenced by Cezanne: Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Giacometti, Morandi and many many more.
It’s interesting to me to read a quote by Bonnard about Cezanne: “The painter who was most powerfully armed in front of nature, the strongest, the most sincere.”
What is interesting about this is soon the Post Modernest’s response was a blatant dislike of anything sincere. As I understand it, “Skeptics reject sincerity because ….blind belief can led to evils like the Klu Klux Klan.” Does sincerity lead to a lack of critical awareness? Does it lead to sentimentality? James Bauldwin said, “Sentimentality is the mask of cruelty, as it is dishonest.”
Meanwhile realists were still out there…or were they? Well, we did have Andrew Wyeth just dripping with that evil sentimentality, but in a sincere way I think.(Am I being ironic?)
Much of the realism that has been done over the past 20- 50 years is illustration or commercial painting for home decor. Of course, some of it is very beautifully and insightfully painted and some of it is pretty trite. For instance the ubiquitous naked woman draped across the couch or worse still, the naked woman draped across the Victorian era couch. (You know the era when we could marginalize and sexually objectify women and get away with it.) One of my students asked why painters paint the same few things over and over again. Good question! One answer is because many buyers want to be comfortable with the paintings he or she buys. They want to have already seen it. And the gallery wants the artist to paint something similar to what they sold last week, because that is what they have marketed. And of course the artist needs to eat so she paints the same pear for the 54th time. (If you know me you know what I’m talking about!)
The Fine Art World has no concerns about sales. It has always been a dialogue of responses to itself. Over the years it has become more and more difficult for me to understand though. If you read about contemporary art you must be verse in that incomprehensible “artspeak” language. Sometimes it seems that the art world has become a case of the Emperor’s Clothes. It appears to me to be spiraling with nowhere to go but self destruction, evisceration. Perhaps in the post-apocalyptic art world there will be the possibility again for sincerity without shame, where we can all live in harmony with whatever expression a person decides to pursue. Where Traditional Realists, Photo-Realists, Avant-garde, Conceptual, Digital, Environmental, Installation, Interactive, Video, Performance, Pop, Post-whatever, Neo whatever, Commercial, and even those damn nudes on couches can coexist without malice, because all have been produced honestly and with (God forbid) sincerity.
Thank you to John Seed who has a rock’n contemporary realist art blog, to Matt Asby and Brendan Carroll for the NY Times article on Irony in Art and to my friends at Wikipedia who are always a big help.