By D. Jeffrey Mims
It must be said that each one of the arts has suffered during this past century of cultural experimentation, but none has taken a hit quite like the visual arts. From sculpture and painting to architecture and city planning, classical design has been sacked as surely as Rome itself — only this time by hordes of art dealers, academicians, and industrialists intent on burying centuries of accumulated knowledge and leaving behind no trace of old world charm or mastery. For a while, it appeared they might have triumphed. How did this happen?
One major influence was the Paris Salon. These exhibitions, in time, helped create a new, democratic art public with a Parisian taste for changing fashion. Their guide was that other important product of the 19th century: the professional art critic. Under these new conditions, and out from the chaos of World War I, modernism began to take root. It was soon exported to the New World where marketing almost anything was possible. On this clean slate of a young culture the modern art world was established, forever lusting after something new. But, novelty rarely brings improvement, and so what is justified, packaged and promoted by the contemporary art market continues to be ... deterioration.
Yet, the art world is changing in profound ways. While modernism thrashes about in its final spasms, New York’s predominance as the art capital of the world is being challenged by a place no one could have possibly foreseen — the internet. As a cultural center for communication, education and innovation, it exhibits momentum beyond comparison. And as this technology speeds forward, enabling so many advances at one time, something else emerges, or rather, reemerges from the confusion and discovery of our time. That something else is the need for beauty, order and tradition, which we have always expressed through the arts.
On December 10, 1881, in his second address to the Royal Academy, the great English artist Lord Leighton left us with what must be the most crystallized definition of the visual arts ever attempted. He wrote that “Her duty is, therefore, to awaken those sensations directly emotional and indirectly intellectual which can be communicated only through the sense of sight....” Consider that for a moment, and then add to that his admonition, especially to painters, not to forget “that the province of art is to speak to the emotional sense, not to make vain exhibition of acquired knowledge, and the work which reveals in the workman no impulse warmer or higher than vanity....”
Just 30 years later, the American muralist and noble defender of classicism Kenyon Cox identified tendencies that even then he saw as threatening to erode all that was great in painting. “The scientific spirit, the contempt of tradition, the lack of discipline and the exaltation of the individual have very nearly made an end of art.” He also recognized that realism itself could be partly to blame, writing that, “There is a certain kind of naturalism [or realism] that is only less indolent than the ignoring of nature.” In criticizing the careful rendering of surface detail that today’s realists often confuse with drawing and painting, Cox brilliantly isolated the inability “to be able to distinguish the essential from the accidental,” a theme dear to Michelangelo and a noticeable trait of our own time.
Contemporary Realism is only the first stirring in an attempt to raise painting and drawing from its paralyzed state. It consists mostly of random “accidental” fragments of illusion, sometimes quite poetic in effect. When there is an attempt at invenzione, or pictorial imagination (that element so prized by the Italian and French academies), we find it substituted with transparently erotic fantasies or explorations of personal neurosis. Lacking even these levels of imagination, we also have the photograph copiers. The universal and humanist tone harmonizing the heritage of western art is at best only dimly felt in even our finest attempts, and any sense of wonder dissolves in the rush to be cutting edge.
Admittedly just relearning the basic language of illusionistic painting has been no small deal. In a tradition as old as Mona Lisa herself, small private studio schools, or ateliers, have been formed quietly going back to the drawing board to learn ... well, how to draw. These ateliers, under the supervision of a practicing artist, are attracting students intent on mastering the fundamentals of drawing and painting in the spirit of the old masters as opposed to the absurd experiments sanctioned by most university art programs. Unfortunately, there is already an entire industry being built around marketing these student attempts from certain ateliers.
However, orchestrating this ability to copy nature into a mature, complex work, or worse yet, attempting to force it into a modernist approach has been, to use a polite phrase, less than successful. There is a new generation of artists who seem instinctively to understand this and who no longer rely on flimsy allegiances to icons of modernism in order to justify work with a completely different set of standards and existing for entirely different reasons. Post-war modernism was based on a rejection of tradition. It fragmented; it deconstructed; and very soon it spiraled down into a dead end of shock with no awe. The classical tradition, on the other hand, is about wholeness and connection. From the ancient Greek sculptor to the 19th-century Romantic painter, there runs a common thread linking the physical world with the spiritual.
Over time conventions developed in art and architecture to express this connection, communicating through a language of proportion, design, and association. I am aware that the very idea of working under the aegis of convention will raise all sorts of alarms with current perceptions of creativity. There are plenty of examples to be found inside the boundaries of tradition that have fallen short of greatness, either through lack of education or natural ability. On the other hand, nearly all of the world’s masterpieces have evolved within artistic conventions of some sort, and there is no reason not to expect this to happen again in the future.
The revival of any real work of significance based on the foundations of traditional drawing and painting, then, will require a much more profound study of the tradition itself — and how it still moves us. I do not speak here of shallow imitation of style or surface, but of the spirit of refinement and exploration evident in all great work. With what must surely be one of the most poignant introductions ever written for a book, Ives Gammell opened his 1946 oracle Twilight of Painting: “To the painter born or unborn, who shall lift the art of painting from the low estate to which it has fallen, this book is hopefully dedicated.” In phrasing it so the author was recognizing the cyclical nature of tradition and its inevitable resurrection, even while all he held dear was being eclipsed by what he and others of his time saw as gathering powers of darkness.
Who can say where inspiration comes from or when a historical shift becomes mainstream? One thing is certain: The art world is changing, and this time we can hope to witness a reversal of deterioration. When contemporary painting is once again truly connected with the classic spirit, its arrival will not be announced by the engaging essay or the blue-chip gallery or even the museum exhibition. This reincarnation will be evident in the work itself, and recognizable by a quality it has always shown, a quality that seems at once to be both effortless and unapproachable. It will have about it a certain unfailing resemblance to all that has been great in the past and at the same time exhibit unmistakable modern resolutions to visual questions that we do not yet even know how to ask.