January 2006

The Other Face of "Contemporary Art"

by Michelle Marder Kamhi & Louis Torres

We have often deplored that the adjective "contemporary" in current artworld parlance does not simply mean, as one might expect, "of the same time as the speaker or writer." Instead, it pertains only to avant-garde work made since 1940 or so--work ranging, in the visual arts, from abstract painting and sculpture to the postmodernist concoctions of the present day (see, for example, the collections in the museums of "contemporary art" in Los Angeles and Chicago [click on "Exhibitions and Collections," then "MCA Collection"]). Categorically excluded from consideration are painting and sculpture by artists working in a traditional academic or classical realist style, though they are, after all, of the same time. Such work, indeed the very existence of such artists, has long been ignored by critics and art historians alike.

So it did not surprise us that when a series of panel discussions featuring traditional contemporary painters and sculptors was held at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City last spring, not one of the city's many newspapers--from the New York Times and the New York Sun to the Wall Street Journal--previewed or covered the events, organized by the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center and hosted by the Dahesh. The loss was of course the public's, for here was a rare opportunity to learn about some of the more talented and dedicated artists working in the grand tradition of figurative painting and sculpture, as well as about the experience of their counterparts in poetry and music. Lost was the chance to hear straight from these artists how they feel and think about their work--in particular, what motivates them to persevere in it against the artworld grain--and how the cultural climate inevitably affects what they do, however indirectly.

Despite the optimistic keynote sounded by Newington-Cropsey's director, James Cooper, there was throughout a more realistic assessment by panelists of the inhospitable nature of the arts establishment. And perhaps more surprising, there were frequent acknowledgments of shortcomings within their own ranks.

The Search for Meaning

In the opening discussion ("The Figure in Contemporary Representational Art [Painting]," April 14, 2005), Martha Mayer Erlebacher--who has taught for many years at the New York Academy of Art --identified several unfortunate tendencies in the work of today's academically trained painters. Under what she referred to as the "intimidating burden" of the art of the past, as well as the constraints of working from the live model, such artists too often resort to static poses, limiting their work to portraiture or to depictions of the recumbent figure, in which "context and content are incidental." In other cases, they rely heavily for their content on the use of appropriated forms, conveying a sense of irony, which "inoculates against criticism," she further observed. For Erlebacher's part, she would prefer work dealing with "the big issues of human existence, made intelligible through representational form."

Another painter on the first panel, Burton Silverman, similarly referred to seeking a "synthesis of form and content" in his work--the representation of something that, though devoid of a religious perspective, nonetheless "survives the moment." As a realist painter who finds his subject matter in people and places he has experienced directly, he disdains emphasizing "visual pleasure" alone and is dedicated to the principle that good work "must have more than mere technical skill." In his portraits and other paintings, he does not aim merely at a "photographically correct" representation of the sitter's external features but at a sense of the inner self.

Again and again in the panelists' presentations and in the discussion that followed on all three evenings, the crucial question arose of the need for values and standards in art. To create work of enduring value, Erlebacher insisted, artists must have strong interests, and must make paintings about those interests. "If you're stupid," she quipped, "you'll make stupid paintings." Good art, she insisted, comes from those who "think deeply about the nature of human life"--a sentiment echoed by the painter Steven Assael (who moderated the session), when he argued that his fellow artists must demonstrate more commitment and passion and in their work, and show more willingness to "take risks."

Perhaps most revealing in this regard were the candid remarks of painter Jacob Collins, a panelist in the third discussion of the series (more on which below). Characterizing himself as a "classical realist painter," Collins spoke of growing up inspired by the draughtsmanship of Old Masters such as Rubens, Tiepolo, and Michelangelo, and of feeling completely alienated from the contemporary art scene. He therefore set about simply trying learning to draw and paint as they did, and is, he added, "still killing himself to draw like that." Yet now, having attained considerable technical proficiency, he has realized "that's not enough." The question is, he added almost poignantly, "what's next?"

Art History's Lamentable Influence

Another recurrent theme in the discussions was the stifling influence of the establishment view of art history as a linear progression from one new movement to another. Anna Brzyski, a Polish-born art historian who teaches at the University of Kentucky at Lexington and has written on modernism's influence on Polish art history (see "Constructing the Canon"), lamented that Polish artists are now seeking to join the "mainstream"--which means conformity to the modernist paradigm that art must challenge both formal norms and the social and political status quo. Though the artworld judges work to be significant only if it fits that paradigm, such a value-judgment need not be universally accepted, she urged.

An audience member at the first session pointed out a salient irony of today's artworld: although BFA and MFA programs, in general, do not teach drawing (the foundational skill of the visual arts), those degrees are nonetheless regarded as necessary credentials assuring one's professional qualification as an artist. Lack of proper training for today's would-be artists was, in fact, a concern repeatedly voiced during the second evening's discussion ("Figurative Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century," April 21) by a panel of sculptors: Sabin Howard, Meredith Bergmann, Anthony Visco, and Alexander Stoddart. Bergmann reported, for example, that to pursue classes in life modelling she had had to go to Europe. In the recent competition to create the Boston Women's Memorial (for which hers was the winning entry), only two of the five finalists actually knew how to sculpt the human form, she noted. Visco told of entering art school believing that all art was representational and that works of art gave "answers"--only to be informed by his teachers that art asked "questions" and that acceptable work might consist of such things as "rearranging a dump site"--his actual student project. On completing it, however, he went home and committed his first real act of rebellion: he made a wax model for a bronze angel.

Stoddart, a sculptor of public monuments who hails from Scotland, also decried the postmodernist vogue of conceptual art--work that is "exhausted in its description," he declared. "That's why critics love it!" In its place, he urged a return toperceptual art, for which "words are not enough." Yet he warned that modernism has tended to becloud the public's powers of discernment. He also observed that since sculpture is "hard work" and students are "naturally lazy," many readily gravitate toward less demanding projects. Further, he dismissed the term "figurative sculpture," because it is as readily applied to widely diverse works by Picasso, Henry Moore, and Jeff Koons as to his own monumental sculptures (he prefers to call them "statues") of historic figures ranging from David Hume to John Witherspoon, a Scottish-born colonist who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Alluding to the pre-eminently public nature of sculpture as an art form, all of the sculptors hewed to the principle of creating work that would be meaningful to others, not just to themselves. For Sabin Howard--who was inspired at the age of fourteen to become a sculptor by seeing Michelangelo's Medici Tomb--it is expressed as a wish to create "something that speaks about life, about the human condition," to all people, "from the Pope to the man on the street." For Anthony Visco, a deep conviction that the human body is the "primary vehicle for the sacred" compels him to honor a "covenant" with the public. Deploring the empty formalism of modernism's "art about art," which adamantly refused to "serve people," he seeks instead to create work that honors the needs and values of viewers, that conveys "some reflection ofbeliefs." So, too, Bergmann spoke of striving to create "a simulation of life in an undying form," hoping "to move, to teach, and to delight" the viewer.

Another idea often raised in the three panel discussions was the value of collaboration with architects--a goal that requires overcoming modernism's dictatorial influence in eliminating ornament. On the third evening ("Convergence of the Arts: New Approaches to Visual Art, Architecture, Music and Poetry," April 28), the architect Steven W. Semes offered some hope that a revival of classical principles, again being taught in many architectural schools, is providing fruitful collaborative opportunities for architects, painters, and sculptors. As he emphasized, the new classicism need not be a slavish imitation of the past but can, and often does, incorporate legitimate modernist advances, such as opening facades up to admit more daylight. Speaking from the audience, the noted historian of classical architecture Henry Hope Reed [more] ironically observed that the room in which the sessions were being held (in the former IBM building, designed by Edward Larabee Barnes) was characterless, wholly devoid of ornament. He then suggested that the term modernism be replaced by "anorexic art," and that the Harvard School of Architecture be renamed the Harvard School of Anorexic Design.

Poetry and Music

Though tradition-minded visual artists have been the most dramatically excluded by the contemporary artworld, panelists in the third discussion made clear that the problem extends to those in music and literature as well. Poet and playwright Fred Feirstein [more] (who is also a practicing psychoanalyst) recounted his experience as a professor of English in the 1960s, when politicization of the curriculum and attacks on the literary canon were gearing up. In the general abandonment of meaningful standards, his own poetry was derided as "reactionary" because it was "linear" and intelligible, he recalled. With respect to poetry, however, modernism (as represented by writers such as Eliot, Yeats, Frost, and Wallace Stevens) is not the real problem, he explained, but rather the "total breakdown" that occurred after 1968, when a string of "suicidal writers" began producing work in which themes of self-destruction predominated (an allusion no doubt to Sylvia Plath, among others).

Finally, composer Stefania de Kenessey [more] (who referred to her own approach as "neo-nineteenth-century") offered striking documentation of the modernist view prevailing among critics and academics by contrasting two definitions of music, from dictionaries published in 1911 and 1974. Whereas the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1911) defined music as the "art of combining sounds with a view to beauty of form and expression of emotion," Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1974) characterizes it as "the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationship." The latter view clearly reflects the influence of modernists such as Stravinsky, whose infamous 1936 declaration de Kenessey also quoted: I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something at all, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention--in short, an aspect, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being. . . . The phenomenon of music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly, the coordination between man and time. To be put into practice, its indispensable and single requirement is construction. Construction once completed, this order has been attained and there is nothing more to be said.

Such formalist views, stripping music of all emotion and meaning, left twentieth-century work "largely impoverished," de Kenessey said. But contemporary composers who reject such views must now ask themselves, What about the past should be valued? And what about it should be jettisoned? The notion of innovation in itself is problematic, she observed--J. S. Bach, for example (surely one of the greatest composers of all time), was not an innovator.

In his opening remarks on the second evening, James Cooper had referred optimistically to a "new spirit in the arts today."* But if anything emerged from the intense discussion on these three evenings it was a sense that a true renaissance in the arts will require more than a body of talented and disciplined individuals striving to create meaningful work, sponsored by isolated private patrons. Their "marginalized" and "ghettoized" status, repeatedly lamented, deprives them of vital feedback, of a sense that what they are doing is of broad value--not to mention depriving them of public commissions. Artists need the engagement of critics, teachers, and a broad public. Only such institutional and cultural support can provide the fertile ground in which they can truly flourish.

* At one point in the series, Cooper (who, as it happens, admires the work of Jackson Pollock) rather surprisingly declared that "modernism was wonderful"--adding: "but it's dead." In our view, of course, nothing about modernism in the arts was wonderful, if by that term one means such things as the early twentieth century's radical break with the true art of the past--in particular, its invention of abstract painting and sculpture.