December 2013

An Urgent Letter to Aristos Readers


Dear Reader:

If you don't attend exhibitions of what is known as "contemporary art" these days, I can hardly blame you. I'd rather not do so myself! Nonetheless, in the past year I've often trekked across Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take the pulse of what now passes for art at this once-hallowed institution.

The Met is America's premier museum of art. Its founding members and early trustees included the Hudson River School painter Frederic E. Church, the sculptor Daniel Chester French [Lincoln Memorial], and the industrialist-collector Henry Clay Frick--whose Fifth Avenue mansion (not far from the Met) and the Old Master paintings it housed would eventually become the renowned Frick Collection.

Departing from that auspicious legacy, the Met's current director, Thomas P. Campbell, has been engaged in a concerted effort to transform the museum into a major player on the international "contemporary art" scene in the years since he assumed his position in 2008. Just what that entails is revealed by numerous exhibitions that have been mounted under his watch. I cite only three recent examples:

* Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, currently on view, is billed as "the first major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art ever mounted." See that face staring out from the exhibition's catalogue? It's art, we're told. More precisely, it's part of Family Tree, a piece of "performance art." As explained by the Met, it is the second in a series of nine photographs of the artist's face, which was gradually filled with Chinese characters until its surface was totally blackened.

* The Refusal of Time, also on view now, is a five-channel video installation that is said to be a "thirty-minute meditation on time and space." When Aristos co-editor Michelle Kamhi and I viewed this cacophonous concoction by William Kentridge (a South African "multimedia artist" adored by today's artworld) it conjured up the feeling of being in a madhouse--or an amusement-park fun house for grownups. (See our item "Madness at the Met" in this issue's Notes & Comments for more.)

* Cloud City [more] [close-up ] was last year's rooftop "installation" at the Met. One enthusiastic visitor--who was filled with "childish glee" at the mere prospect of seeing it--found it "powerful," even "profound." He thought it "shows how reality is brought into realization according to the observer's viewpoint." Ignore such claims of deep meaning. We thought it was just fun to climb in, and that it was better suited to Disneyland than to the Met.

Meanwhile, contemporary painters and sculptors whose work honors the legacy of artists like Church, French, and the Old Masters collected by Mr. Frick are completely ignored by the Met and other comprehensive museums across America--including, no doubt, the one nearest you. Moreover, they are ignored in our nation's schools, where young people are largely given a sadly skewed picture of today's art.

And I've touched only on the situation in the visual arts! Similar rot could be cited in the other arts as well.

The culture is ailing. It needs help. That is where Aristos, and you, come in.

Our Unique Perspective

Since its inception as a print journal in 1982, Aristos has been distinguished by its unique perspective on the arts. It alone has insisted that "art" can and should be defined, that not everything put forward as art by alleged artists truly qualifies.

With respect to the visual arts, only Aristos is equally critical of both modernism in the form of "abstract art" and the bizarre inventions of postmodernism (such as the exhibitions cited above). The same cannot be said of either politically conservative periodicals like the New Criterion and the Weekly Standard or liberal magazines such as the Atlantic and the Nation. At the same time, only Aristos champions classical realist, or academic, painters and sculptors of our time.

The authoritative reference source Magazines for Libraries called the print version of Aristos "a scholarly but gutsy little periodical" whose feature articles carried "more weight than those found in more substantial periodicals." Library Journal also deemed its "controversial and combative" content of value, "particularly as the point of view is unique."

And the renowned cultural historian Jacques Barzun wrote to tell us that he had found "much pleasure and instruction" in Aristos. In later years, he also warmly praised What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (see "What Art Is Sparks Scholarly Interest" in this month's Notes & Comments)--which, incidentally, grew out of a series of articles published in Aristos in the early 1990s.

Has any of this changed since we switched to online publication in 2003? Not at all. Readers still praise us for gutsily combating the avant-garde. But other things have changed. Publishing online has meant that we can offer readers even deeper and more varied fare than before, including more articles (with links to images and other online material), the Aristos Awards, and a searchable archive of past online issues--not to mention PDF reprints of key articles originally published in the print journal.

But we can't wage the cultural battle alone. We need your support.

How you can help

Since its inception as a print journal in 1982, Aristos has operated on a bare-bones budget. Because our controversial viewpoint has made it difficult to attract major support, however, we have always depended on the generosity of individuals like you to sustain our efforts.

Moving to online publication has enabled us to reach infinitely more readers at much lower cost. But we have given up the subscription fees that had helped underwrite the print journal. And though Aristos is now free to readers, it is not cost-free to sustain.

Our modest budget must cover basic necessities ranging from supplies and an Internet Service Provider to part-time assistance with website maintenance, design, and other technical matters, and in areas ranging from social-media and e-mail marketing to student outreach (more on which below). (I should add that neither Michelle nor I receive compensation for our work.)

That is why we need your help. If you value and derive pleasure from Aristos and wish to see it flourish, please consider making a donation, however modest, to support our work in the coming year.

Our Main Goal for 2014

More frequent publication. Though we have always aimed to publish on a monthly schedule, that goal has remained an elusive one, given our limited resources. Without funds to pay other writers, the major content of Aristos is entirely dependent on Michelle and me. In order to publish more frequently, we must find part-time editorial assistants (more on which see below) who can take on smaller writing, research, and general support tasks.

Related Projects

Recruitment of Editorial Assistants. Early next year we will launch a nationwide search for one or more editorial assistants from among student arts critics on the staffs of college newspapers. The assistant who will spearhead this outreach is herself a recent college graduate. But it won't be easy to find the few who not only write well but also agree with our editorial philosophy. Most students who cover the visual arts, for example, are likely to reflect the biases of their art history and philosophy professors. So we must cast a wide net. Your support will help us sustain this long-range effort.

Expanding the Reach of Our Ideas. Our project of outreach to a wider audience through our Facebook page, launched nearly two years ago, is on-going. No longer mainly the purview of college students and teenagers, it has evolved into an essential social-media adjunct for every cultural institution and periodical of note--not to mention prominent individuals in the arts. Even this month's Aristos Award winner, Philip Roth, has a Facebook page.

Our own page is enabling us to reach more and more new readers here and abroad. It also allows us to comment on other Facebook pages, such as that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which has more than a million "Likes"[!]--as I write, we have a more modest 361). We can thereby increase interest in Aristos and traffic to its website. An editorial intern could help us significantly accelerate that process by helping to post items on a daily basis.

Beyond Aristos

In addition to writing for and editing Aristos, both Michelle and I have continued to work on major book projects.

* Michelle is putting the finishing touches on her book Who Says That's Art?--to be published in both electronic and print editions in 2014. Subtitled A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts, the book greatly expands upon ideas in What Art Is, and is aimed at a wide audience. It presents a substantial challenge to today's dysfunctional artworld by refuting the prevailing assumption that virtually anything can be art, and by offering a well-documented defense of traditional fine art.

Employing historical, cross-cultural, and scientific evidence, it shows that painting and sculpture have universally served to embody important values. It further demonstrates that neither "abstract art" nor the endless inventions of postmodernism can effectively serve this crucial function.

Finally, it not only considers the diverse forces that conspire to promote bogus art in today's culture but also recommends ways to counter their influence. In addition, it offers a personal reflection upon "The Pleasures and Rewards of Art--Real Art, That Is."

* My own book--on the interminable monopoly of the avant-garde in the visual arts, begun five years ago--is still a work in progress. It documents the avant-garde's growing influence in every relevant facet of the culture--from academia, K-12 education, and PBS to the National Endowment for the Arts and venerable cultural institutions. It also reveals the shameless encroachment of that influence into smaller private museums founded by visionary collectors.

I am especially critical of trustees who have violated the ethical if not legal responsibilities inherent in the concept of trust. It argues that trustees of inviolable integrity must wrest control of the boards on which they sit and appoint directors who will honor the letter and spirit of the institution's founding documents or the implicit expectations and wishes of founding individuals.

I conclude by arguing that there is hope, but only if rational ideas about art takes root in the culture at large.

Please Give What You Can Now!

To help us attain our goals and thereby stem the tide against the lamentable decline of timeless standards in the arts, please make a donation to The Aristos Foundation now in whatever amount you can afford. The Aristos Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Contributions to the Foundation are tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. If you would like further information, please don't hesitate to write to me.

With thanks for your consideration, and best wishes for the New Year,

Louis Torres
Founder and Co-Editor, Aristos
Chairman, The Aristos Foundation